I like pictures, which is why my favorite kind of internet search is one that brings up images. A keyword, a date, and boom! There you are, the exact visual inspiration you needed, in mega-pixels to show every detail.
How very different it must have been for writers, artists, and other such creative folk living in the days before photographs, let alone digital imaging. Imagination took the place of precise representations, and while the results sometimes have a fanciful look (remember the old fable about the blind men and the elephant), they can also be quite wonderful, too.
When direct trading began between Europe and China in the early 16h c, much more was exchanged between countries than just spice and tea. "Foreign" couldn't begin to describe the vast differences between countries and people on the opposite sides of the world. Drawings, paintings, and written descriptions could convey just so much; the elaborate pagodas that sprouted in English gardens and the "Chinoiserie" that decorated London drawing rooms would likely have befuddled a proper citizen of Canton.
The stylistic cross-pollination is evident in this handsome porcelain couple. (Click on the photos to enlarge.) Made in Jingdezhen, China, about 1740, the pair was created for the European market. They're large pieces (about a foot tall), with considerable detail. The unknown Chinese artist most likely had never seen either a European man or woman. Without Google, he had to rely on European prints for inspiration, and when that was exhausted, supply his own interpretation of fashionable clothing. The fluted ruffs, the lady's lace cap and full sleeves and the gentleman's wide-brimmed hat and beard look very much like those seen in Dutch portraits in the 1630s like these, lower left.
But the porcelain lady also seems to be wearing an early 18th c petticoat, apron, short cape, and little pointed shoes that must have come from a later, more windswept fashion print. (Her apron strings are tied in a neat bow exactly like the mantua-maker's apprentice from Colonial Williamsburg.) Not understanding the construction of a low-cut European decolletage, the glazer has painted the lady's chest yellow, as an extension of her bodice. While the gentleman's stylized sash could be a 17th c English or Dutch style, his long open robe and gown in place of breeches are not. Or is he wearing an early version of a banyan or wrapping gown, garments that were themselves imports from the East? The clothes of both figures are patterned and colored like Chinese textiles, the most fashionable silks that would be imported to Europe – and again East meets West meets East meets West....
Above: European man and woman, made in Jingdezhen, China; c 1740, Winterthur Museum. Lower left: Detail, Family Portrait, by Frans Hals, c 1635, Cincinnati Art Museum
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.